The Washington NFL Football Team announced earlier this month that it would engage in a name change, after decades of protests from people who found the moniker “Redskins” racist. All it took was a demand from a multi-million-dollar sponsor, and suddenly, the team was all about doing the right thing.
Shortly there after, the Cleveland Major League Baseball Team announced it would be looking into whether “Indians” should still be part of the sporting zeitgeist. About two years earlier, the team mostly retired its long-time mascot Chief Wahoo from its merchandise and apparel.
(As a long-time and long-suffering Cleveland fan of multiple sports, I have to say one was well overdue. It’s been tough to wear baseball gear supporting the team I have loved since I was 10 in this day and age. That said, and this isn’t a defense, but it likely used to be a hell of a lot worse when they had this logo.)
Meanwhile, the Atlanta Braves have decided that tradition is too strong for a team that has called at least two other cities home and features the mascot “Chief Noc-A-Homa” as well as the “chant and tomahawk chop” routine to consider making a change. Must be a lot of money in those foam tomahawks…
I guess, as Meatloaf once opined, “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.” That said, while trying to fix one stupid thing, there is always the risk of creating other stupid things. Bad nickname choices can lead to awkward double meaning, stupid logos and some very difficult editorial decisions for writers.
With all of this in mind, here are the four journalism-based requests for Washington and Cleveland as they begin their quest for better nomenclature:
DODGE GRAMMAR PROBLEMS: The first thing we need to make clear is that the name has to be plural, and I mean VISIBLY plural with an “S” on the end of whatever the teams pick. (Sorry, no Mice or Moose.)
Some of the dumbest grammar arguments come out of singular team names like the Colorado Avalanche, the Minnesota Wild, the Miami Heat or the Orlando Magic. As a team grammatically operates as a gender-neutral single entity, the singular team names get the same treatment. That means when the Bucks play the Heat, the pronouns would be “They play it.” Of course, it’s grammatically correct and yet it makes absolutely no sense at all.
Also, no names that can be read as a verb. We don’t need another Thunder or Jazz to make for some really bad headlines like “Bucks deal Thunder third-straight loss.” A bad headline break in that can make them sound like Zeus tossing bolts around.
Another verb-based moment of stupidity would be “Raptors play Jazz tonight,” which would look something like this, I’m sure:
AVOID HEADLINE HEADACHES: Journalists have to think about how things will look in the big type, so please keep in mind that certain words don’t work all that well. Case in point is the old San Diego team from the American Basketball Association:
It was a lousy team, (and the term has its own awkward past) but it did have a really cool logo. The problem was trying to squeeze “CONQUISTADORS” into any kind of head specs. When the designer gave you a one-column headline for a game between these guys and the Dallas Chaparrals, it was a safe bet that he thought you were having an affair with his wife.
To solve that brain-bending problem, journalists started referring to the team as “The Q’s” which made about as much sense as anything else in the ABA.
THINK LIKE A 12-YEAR-OLD BOY: A team name like the “Lumberjacks” can seem like a great idea at the time, but it definitely puts headline writers in a pickle, as we noted above. Those scribes trying to fit 10 pounds of stuff in a 5-pound bag can end up making things worse if they fail to have a dirty mind:
Before you get too far into the idea of what the next name should be for either of these franchises, have an intern in the PR department Google every potential euphemism for male and female genitalia as well as doing a deep dive into every possible corner of the internet for references for disturbing sex acts.
That means, despite the city’s proud history of shipbuilding, you do not want to go with the “Cleveland Steamers.”
Also, consider every possible noun and verb you plan to use as part of a social media campaign or every potential permutation of your name when placed into a hashtag. (I can imagine the Oakland A’s doing a promotion where plating a certain number of runs could lead to free meal or something. The result would be the #asscorefour hashtag, which sounds like one of many sequels to a porn film.)
RESEARCH THE HELL OUT OF IT BEFORE YOU DECIDE: Anything you pick should go through the standard vetting process for copyright, fan engagement and such, no doubt. However, if you get only one good swing at this name change thing, you better dig a lot deeper to ensure you aren’t accidentally stepping on a racial, sexist or homophobic landmine.
Here’s what I mean: A Texas PR firm that specialized in food and drink was looking for a fun and engaging name back in 2012. The two women, who are white, came up with what they saw as a quirky, on-point moniker, so they did a quick Google search to see if anyone else had used it. Turned out, it was the title of a Billie Holiday song from the 1930s, but they figured it was so far afield, it wouldn’t be a problem, so they went with it.
The name? “Strange Fruit.”
A bit more than a quick search might have helped this PR firm avoid two years of bad PR. The song is about the lynching of African Americans and the lyrics aren’t opaque on that point. The women eventually rebranded as “Perennial PR,” but even that had problems when they failed to grab social media accounts by that name. Someone else did and had a lot of fun at their expense.
That means you start looking for everything that ever was when it comes to any name you want to pick. You think something like the “Washington Potomacs” seems cool and safe, make sure you’re not ticking off people with a sense of Negro League Baseball history. Pretty sure you don’t want to name them the “Washington Marshals,” as law-enforcement names aren’t really getting much love these days, plus it could seem to be a minor nod to former owner George Preston Marshall (yes, the spelling is different), who didn’t have an open mind on issues of race.
And for the love of God, avoid the “Washington Woodsmen.” No, I didn’t know this was a thing. Yes, I looked through the entire Urban Dictionary’s “W” section, which is something Dan Snyder’s people should do as well.
No, you don’t want to know what it means.